Notes on Vargas, Griffey, League
The M’s – and their restive fan base – really needed a win today. Thanks to Josh Wilson (!) and Michael Saunders (!), the team’s win probability was above 90% from the 4th inning on.
It’s amazing to me how much one game can mean. Every one of us knows well that it’s possible to be a dispassionate observer of a team that we support – we did it pretty routinely from 2004 on. But while there were elements of black comedy in, say, the 2004 team, this recent losing streak was about as joyless a run as I’ve seen in a while. Can you really be excited about a beating the Angels at home to avoid a sweep? Yes – sheepish excitement is still excitement. I actually liked watching the M’s for the first time in a while; I’ve been hiding out in Tacoma watching the Rainiers a lot more than the M’s. I never thought I’d say I was glad to miss a Felix Day, but hey, I’m glad I missed this week’s Felix day!
And now, bullet points, faithful friend of the blogger:
1: Josh Wilson was the star of the game from a hitting and WPA perspective, but I’d give the first star to Jason Vargas, who’s on quite a tear. I talked about him a few weeks back, but as we get more data on him, what he’s doing looks less and less like a small sample fluke. Last year, his overall results put him in the pitch-to-contact category, but looking at his results by pitch showed that he’d developed a very effective change-up. Vargas got swinging strikes on 22.3% of his change-ups in 2009 compared to a league average of 12.1%. He posted an oSw% (swings on balls outside of the strike zone) rate above the league average.
This year, he’s throwing the change-up a lot more, and it’s every bit as effective: he’s getting swinging strikes on 22.4% of them now, and, as I mentioned before, he’s using it against lefties now too (lefties have swung and missed at about 30% of Vargas’ change-ups during his Mariner career. 30%!). Contact rate is a stat that stabilizes quickly, and we’re now approaching a year’s worth of data that indicates that Vargas’ change-up is a plus pitch. It’s always nerve-racking to watch a guy throwing 87 and give up fly balls, but it’s not exactly unprecedented. One comparable pitcher that comes to mind is Shaun Marcum of the Jays, who’s remarkably similar (right down to the year lost to injury) albeit right handed. Marcum’s contact rate is essentially equal to Felix Hernadez’s thus far, which is impressive for a righty junkballer. Vargas is no slouch either; his 78% rate ties him with CC Sabathia.
The margin for error is very small, as the trail of lefties in the Moyer mold that came up and failed with the M’s attests (anyone remember Bobby Livingston?), but Vargas’ run is one of the few highlights of the year so far.
2: We all know Ken Griffey’s no longer a major league hitter, but his struggles with breaking balls are now about as painful to watch as an Adam Moore AB. Hell, Steve Kelley wrote a column this year about how Griffey looks for FBs almost exclusively at this stage of his career, so this isn’t groundbreaking stuff. Still, I didn’t expect this level of futility: on pitches below 87 MPH, Griffey is 0-14 on balls in play, with 14 swinging strikes. I’m a bit surprised Matt Garza threw him a high fastball, but then we’re all aware that declining batspeed has rendered Griffey useless against plus FBs too: on balls in play, he’s 3-14 against FBs at 93 MPH or more, and he’s struck out in over 20% of his plate appearances against a pitcher with a 93+ MPH FB.
His window is small, and it’s getting smaller. I know Dave and others are incensed with Sweeney and his presence on the team, and I also know the team’s unlikely to do anything with Griffey, but this can’t continue. The argument that he brings in casual fans sounds plausible, but Derek pointed out that it wasn’t actually true last year, and it’s *really* not true this year. A team this limited offensively can’t afford to punt outs, and it’s doing so up and down the line-up. The catching situation is dire, but that just makes it more important to get offense from the DH spot. Oh, and the premise of the Kelley column about Griffey rarely seeing fastballs anymore? Not close. He’s seeing considerably more of them now, more than he’d seen since 2002.
3: You may have heard about a new statistic that Fangraphs is keeping track of as an alternative to the deeply flawed ‘save.’ You can read about how the idea came about here; this essentially went from a rant about saves to a metric on Fangraphs in less than a week. Using win-probability data, a reliever gets a ‘shutdown’ by bringing WPA up by 0.06, and a ‘meltdown’ by dropping WPA by 0.06. This means that many relievers, not just ‘closers,’ have the opportunity to notch a shutdown.
The M’s leader in both shutdowns and meltdowns isn’t the closer, it’s Brandon League. While he hasn’t come in the highest leverage situations (he’s beyond Lowe and Aardsma), he’s managed 5 shutdowns and 4 meltdowns. The latter figure ties him for 2nd most in baseball.
League had a solid game today, but he’s clearly not been as effective as he was last year. His ERA may not have been eye-popping, but his xFIP and tRA were well above average thanks in large part to a new splitter that ended the year as the best pitch in baseball by swinging strike rate. Unfortunately, the pitch just isn’t the same this year – his swinging strike rate on the pitch has been halved. It’s still pretty good, but we all thought we’d acquired a guy with a great out pitch, not a decent one. I’m hoping it’s just a small-sample oddity, but I feel like I’m going to that particular well pretty often these days (seriously Chone: please remember how to hit).